A checking account is the engine of household personal finances. It's fueled by incoming paychecks and depleted by bill payments, debit card purchases, and the like.

So before you send your child to live on her own at college, it's a good idea that she establishes a student checking account and learns how to use it correctly.

This rite of passage should take place during your child's high school years, according to Practical Money Skills for Life, a financial literacy program used by millions of students and developed by consumer advocates, educators, and financial institutions. And many students go through it. According to the program, some 80 percent of students who arrive at college already have a checking account.

Unfortunately, for young and trusting souls bank accounts can be a tricky Jabberwock, with fees that bite and rules that catch. Here's how to get your student off on the right foot.

Choose the Right Kind of Account

Open a joint bank or credit union checking account with your child. There are alternatives, but traditional checking is what your young adult will probably be using for life. A joint account is required for kids under the age of 18 or 21, depending on the state, says Rob Rowe, vice president and associate chief counsel at the American Bankers Association. Use our ratings to find the best banks and credit unions.

Consider a prepaid card. You could get a prepaid card for your youngster instead of a regular student checking account. Both kinds of accounts share many of the same features. You simply load money onto the card and your child can then use it to make payments. These cards, once notorious for high fees, are getting better all the time. New consumer protections expected from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau this year will put prepaid cards on par with bank account debit cards. Use our ratings to find the best prepaid cards.

You don't have to use a college-sponsored checking account. Your college may promote checking from a bank with which it has a marketing relationship. You should realize that your child does not need to open such an account. Financial aid, for example, can be directly made to any existing bank account. 

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education instituted rules that protect students and prohibit abuses related to college-sponsored accounts, including excessive and confusing overdraft fees and charges for swiping their debit card to make retail store purchases.

That was a major victory for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, which investigated and advocated against such practices while working closely with the Department of Education to develop the new regulations.

Suzanne Martindale, a staff attorney at Consumers Union, says that this past summer, she rechecked the marketplace for sponsored accounts. "We couldn't find any banks that we looked at previously that are now charging debit card transaction fees," she says.

Optimize Your Decision

Choosing the kind of student checking account you'll open is just one part of the process. There's more to consider. The CFPB suggests that you consider a bank or credit union "student" account, which might offer discounted fees, free ATM networks, and no overdraft fees. While your college may also promote such a checking account from a bank with which it has a marketing arrangement, don't just assume that's the best choice. Carefully compare all of your options, and pick whichever one best meets your needs and is most affordable. 

You may want to open an account for your child at the same bank where you currently have an account. If your bank is a major national bank, for example, it may have branches near the college your child attends. If both parent and student have accounts with the same institution, money transfers can be faster than if they are made between different banks. Rowe also says parents also like this arrangement because, if a problem arises with the student account, they can easily visit their home branch and get personal service to straighten things out.

Finally, students with new accounts should know they could be targets of scammers—and be aware of the cashiers check scam. One woman, who did not want her identity revealed, told us that her 19-year-old daughter was scammed into depositing a $2,980 cashier's check into her student checking account. She then withdrew $2,500 the next day and used the money to buy prepaid cards. She then mailed those cards to the crook, following the scammer's instructions. The bank allowed her to withdraw those funds out even though the daughter only had $1,200 on deposit in checking and savings.That's because regulations require banks to release funds from cashiers checks in that manner.  

When the cashier's check turned out to be bogus, the bank seized funds from both the daughter's and mother's bank accounts, to make good on the bad check, which was perfectly allowable under the terms of the account.